Thursday, December 27, 2012

Time to overhaul Singapore’s national security policies ... think again

Sometimes those of us in uniform can't help feeling the public has a bone to pick with us. You get STOMPed for playing PSP on the bus. You get STOMPed for carrying your girlfriend's handbag. You get STOMPed for eating in a hawker centre. It really makes you not want to go out in uniform. And then there always seems to be questions like "Who is really going to attack Singapore?" or "Aren't we too small to put up a fight anyway?"

So when I saw this article, "Time to overhaul Singapore’s national security policies" on Yahoo, which I am told is a hotbed of anti-government sentiment, I just thought "here we go again..." but still I had to read it to see if there was anything valid. The points made are nothing new, apart from those that are outright factually wrong (see if you can spot them). Here are some snippets:

  • Singapore’s national security policies are outdated and in dire need of revision. These policies are heavily influenced by the paranoia of the 1960s, when a vulnerability fetish gave rise to a siege mentality amongst Singaporean leaders that persists till today.
  • One archaic assumption is that Singapore should maintain a military alliance with Israel to protect itself from its main security threat
  • Peace in Singapore is a non-negotiable prerequisite for Asia’s stability.
  • Singapore is possibly the only modern state that has never been embroiled in a major military conflict but still insists on maintaining a conscript army.
  • From a fiscal point of view, the money could be better spent elsewhere. The Ministry of Defence gets more tax dollars—almost a quarter of total government spending—than any other.
  • Singapore has essentially been targeting a demographic that comprises less than a quarter of the country, and insisting that they defend the rest. Is that fair?
But what really got me smiling were the comments. Here are the top comments as voted by Yahoo blog's readers:

I didn't cherry-pick the best ones, I just did a couple of full screen grabs. They majority of readers (as voted by other readers) do understand the importance of defence and the need for national service. "Fortunately, the majority of our people understand that although this swan is beautiful and swimming gracefully on the water surface, its pair of legs are paddling and kicking very, very hard, non stop, so that it is able to maintain it balance, composure and gracefulness. "

Everyone likes to feel appreciated, even your soldiers in uniform and even the NSF and NSmen. It is great to know that the public does understand the importance of what we do, and that NSmen are coming forward to speak up for it. It gives me that extra motivation to go to work in the morning :)

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Taipei vs Singapore

I always tell people that living away from Singapore always makes me appreciate Singapore more. After 10 days in Taipei, I must admit that this trip has left me with rather mixed feelings. Singapore and Taipei should make for an interesting comparison. At a glance, both are economically developed and technologically advanced. They were both members of the pack of Asian Tigers in the late 20th century. But they feel quite a world apart. So let me list a few of my observations, in decreasing order of what is important to me.

I should caveat first that travelling with 2 kids, I definitely have not covered the range of experiences a single traveller would in such a time period, however this circumstance has made me more aware of certain aspects of society.

It was lovely to be transported from 30+ degrees in Singapore to 20+ degrees Celsius in Taipei. With lovely cool weather, the outdoors are much more pleasurable like going for long walks in the afternoon or even visiting the zoo. (The Mandai Zoo may be a award-winning, but you can't help but be drenched in sweat.) One thing I couldn't understand was why the locals are always decked out like they are preparing for a snow storm. Most days I was out in t-shirt and bermudas, and I see the locals wearing long coats or down jackets. If only we could change the weather in Singapore... but I think we've already done our best with air conditioned spaces and even connectors.

Caring Society
I have been very taken with how friendly and caring the Taiwanese are. On the public transport system, they never fail to offer their seats to my wife, or even to me because I am carrying a baby (even the old ladies and fat ladies, which makes me very embarrassed to accept the offer). They are very helpful in giving directions, and generally very accommodating to the needs of parents with kids. In fact, I observe that they are very sensitive to all kinds of special needs. For example, there are ramps for wheelchairs (and strollers) everywhere; each MRT station is equipped withe a beautiful breastfeeding room for nursing mothers; and I've seen station staff providing wheelchairs and even wheeling around commuters with limited mobility, accompanying them all the way until they reach their seat on the train. I see far more disabled people on the streets, trains and convenience stores in Taipei than Singapore, and it makes me wonder if there are really so many more disabled there, or if society as a whole has taken better care of them such that they are able to venture out.

In the elevators, people actually squeeze to make room, and then take the extra effort to invite you in. People randomly struck up conversations with me, whether I was in the line to buy food or just walking down the street. What would it take to make our society more caring? Another round of Singa the Lion? If only people could take this upon themselves, instead of always waiting for the government to do something ...

Getting Around
Getting around Taipei on foot, by subway and by rental car was a mixed experience. Walking in Taipei city was great - there were wide and separate paths for both pedestrians and cyclists, although this was marred by the detours created by road works and bad pollution. It was even worse in Danshui, where the sidewalks were narrow or non-existent, and pollution was terrible. The subway was generally good - even at rush our, we were always able to get onto the train, and were almost always offered a seat even if they were all occupied. And there were always elevators for our stroller, although they sometimes required lengthy detours. Driving was rather painful, as the traffic was chaotic and parking was always very difficult to find. The overcrowding on our trains could be improved. But on the other hand, the strict quotas on COEs have certainly made the roads more useable. And if only we had more space for wider sidewalks too...

One thing that greatly disappointed me was the food in Taiwan. After all the hype, it was frankly quite a let-down. My taste buds weren't too impressed, and my (actually all four of us) digestive system has been rebelling ever since. The xiao long bao's in Din Tai Fung were good but not outstanding (I still prefer Paradise Dynasty and Pu Dong Kitchen). I had Braised Beef Noodles in three different places, but only the one at Lao Zhang was really good. And the night market food while good, was a bad experience because the crowds made it so difficult to get around, and it was impossible to sit down to enjoy the food (although it would probably have been much better without the kids).

Of course, I have to make mention of the best things I ate. They are #1: The fried squid at Shi Lin, #2: oyster tempura at Japanese Cutlet in Danshui and #3: Spicy Hot Pot in Danshui. But overall, the best thing about food in Taipei was the prices! I was really glad to be back to Singapore food. This is something I can really be appreciative of.

Street hawker selling delectable fried squid dusted with Shi Lin's secret powder 

A range of delicious tempuras at Japanese Cutlet

After quite a search and asking people for directions, we finally found Lao Zhang (not where Google Maps said it was)

Update 25 Dec: Many people have expressed surprise that I didn't enjoy the food, because they loved the food in Taiwan. I do not think it is because (as one person suggested) I just went to tourist traps, because we did a fair bit of research and went to many highly reviewed eateries, as well as other random places along the way. However, I have concluded that maybe I just don't like Taiwanese food. I will take Vietnam or Japan (or even Turkey and Greece) any day - these are countries where I really have loved almost everything I put into my mouth. Unfortunately, Taiwan does not fall into this category.

I remember a recent article that the MAS is investigating why prices are so high in Singapore. This hit home in Taipei, when I realised just how expensive food and transport in Singapore is. I can understand why Singapore is more expensive than Malaysia or Vietnam, but why should it be so much more expensive than Taiwan, which is as advanced if not more so than us? A really good meal in a restaurant there could be gotten for $20-25, something I would expect to pay $30-40 here for. The zoo admission cost $3. We could go most places on the subway for $1, and the Gondola (cable car) cost less than $2.
Looking through the floor of our Crystal Cabin Gondola (less than $4 for the entire cabin)

On the flip side, I was surprised at how run down the buildings in Taipei were, compared to Singapore. And I couldn't help wondering if the two were somehow linked, are we over-spending on building development and thus raising the cost of living? Well, to really answer that question, I'd have to look into all the economics of GNP, income distribution, etc etc which I'm not going to for this post. Suffice to say, why are prices in Singapore so high?

Update 25 Dec: Over lunch recently, we were also commenting how the prices of electronics in Singapore are no longer competitive. You are much better off buying from HK or the US now. One simple explanation suggested to me is our rising GST. This makes sense as one of the direct causal factors, but of course is a result of other tax policy considerations.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Meeting Butler for Android v0.98 beta

This is my Android implementation of the original Meeting Butler (for iOS) written by He Ruijie.

What Does It Do?
The interface and implementation are different, but this basically fulfils the same functions. This is an app for secretaries to use to broadcast over sms the progress of a meeting so that external presenters know when to be ready to come in.

The scenario is like this: items for a meeting are scheduled every fifteen minutes, and presenters have an allotted time to show up to present. But Item 2 has just dragged on for an hour and as a result, the presenters for the remaining 8 items each end up waiting 45 minutes longer for their turn (assuming no other item drags). With a lot of items and a lot of people per item, this could be a substantial waste of time. The meeting butler allows the secretary to broadcast an sms each time an item completes, so that all subsequent presenters have a near-real-time estimate of when they should show up, even if items deviate from their scheduled timings.

How Does It Work?

1) To create a meeting, simply enter the meeting name

2) Enter the initial number of items. (Additional items can still be added later)

3) Select the broadcast mode. Either to notify members of all future items or, to conserve sms, only notify the presenter of the next item.

4) Create Butler!

Here are some additional screenshots. I decided not to give detailed instructions to test how intuitive the interface is.

A Little History

Since the first iOS version, which has been well-received in MINDEF and also featured in the MINDEF PRIDE, two key developments made an Android version seem necessary. The first was Apple's decision not to allow the sale of camera-removed iPhones, which meant that there are now very few iPhone that can be brought onto MINDEF premises. The second was the Army's decision to use Android-based phones for various unit roles. Hence, there is an opportunity to develop useful Android apps for SAF purposes. So I decided to write my first Android app.

This has been labelled version 0.98 beta because I have not quite finished it yet. Unfortunately, the workload from my primary work has necessitated suspension of further development for now. Nevertheless, the app is fully functional, and I have decided to post it online to solicit comments and feedback. This will help me to identify bugs and improve the user interface to make it more intuitive.

Your feedback and comments are welcome directly on this post, and development should resume at the end of the year.

Known Issues

When selecting phone numbers from the address book, if a contact has more than one number listed, the app will take the first number as the default, because I have not yet programmed a selection box to allow the user to select from available numbers. This could be a problem if it is not the intended mobile number. And that is why this is version 0.98 :)

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Facebook blew it

Facebook could have had the killer app, but they blew it.

Facebook's Notes could have been the best blogging platform out there, coupled with Facebook's privacy controls to make a blog entry public or micromanage the readership access to a list or individual names. But the actual Notes app is so painful to use that no one who places any value on layout or aesthetics would want to use it. Hello, they don't even have rich text!

Anybody who has struggled with the balance between privacy, anonymity and readership would appreciate this value proposition. I used to have a Livejournal blog. It was great, I could fully password-protect it, such that only logged-in friends could read it. That was why I had about 3 regular readers. Then I had another anonymous blog that actually had rather good readership. (I think ten years ago, 100+ readers a day was pretty good.) But most of them didn't know who I was, and only a handful of my friends knew of the blog; I wanted people to know I was writing, but it seemed very strange to go around publicising my anonymous blog.

So after a long blogging hiatus (with only the occasional Facebook Note in between), I've decided to start a new blog. And this time, the ideal platform would clearly seem to be blogger, linked to Google+ to get the best of those two worlds - privacy and publicity - whichever is more appropriate for the moment. Facebook missed it, but I think this is one thing that Google is certainly doing right.

So I shall be writing about family, Android apps, military stuff and probably making disparaging remarks at some of the numbskulls in cyberspace and the newspaper forums. But depending on who you are, you might not see all of it. Try your luck ... add me to your Google+ circles.